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A New York State task force has recommended that the commissioner of education be authorized to force unwilling school districts to merge--a recommendation that has stirred controversy and one the commissioner himself is not certain he supports.

In its report to the board of regents last month, the task force said it believed it is important that "in extreme circumstances there ... be somebody above the local voters to require mergers,'' according to Patricia Keegan, a spokeswoman for the regents.

The proposal has drawn the opposition of the state school boards' association, the state's largest teachers' union, and the secretary of state.

Linda Rosenblatt, the chief spokeswoman for the New York State United Teachers, said her organization questions the educational soundness of jeopardizing one district to solve the problems of another.

"We're not opposed to mergers if the people who are involved agree,'' Ms. Rosenblatt said.

Commissioner Thomas Sobol told reporters he is not sure whether vesting the power in his office is the best solution. He will make his recommendations to the regents this month.

The regents created the task force at the behest of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who has suggested that district mergers will save money.

The task force found mergers will not necessarily save money, and could actually increase costs in some instances.

Overriding 30 years of precedent, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that divorced or separated parents are not obligated to pay for their chidren's education.

The high court's decision comes in the case of Reginald Blue v. Ronald Blue. In 1989, a trial court ordered Ronald Blue to pay $4,800 a year in college support, and ordered his son Reginald to apply for college loans, scholarships, or other forms of outside assistance.

On appeal, a state superior court upheld the payment order for Ronald, but voided the son's responsibility for finding financial aid, citing a 1971 case as a precedent that parents have primary responsibility for providing postsecondary financial support.

Last month, the supreme court found no statutory or judicial precedent stating that divorced parents have primary responsibility for providing college support. The 1971 case, which many previous decisions had relied on, is not a valid precedent because it merely enforced a contractual agreement between two parents to support their child's college education.

The high court said in its 5-to-1 ruling that Ronald need not pay his son's tuition.

Frances Sonne, Ronald Blue's lawyer, said the decision leaves "a lot of questions ... unanswered.'' For example, she said, there are no guidelines for divorced parents who may be eligible for refunds for college support they have provided. Child-support offices throughout the state are dealing with the issue in different ways, she noted.

Girls and women in Rhode Island face bias at all levels of schooling and often are discouraged from studies that would qualify them for entering well-paying professions, a state-level advisory panel has concluded.

The Rhode Island Commission on Women, chartered by the state legislature in 1970, released a "report card'' late last month on what progress the schools have made in meeting the mandates of Title IX, the 20-year-old federal law that outlawed gender discrimination in education.

The commission found that girls continue to perform more poorly in mathematics and science and to score lower on both the verbal and math portions of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

The disparity in math and science, the report argues, results from the bias of teachers who encourage boys in those subjects.

Girls are also underrepresented in vocational courses that typically lead to well-paying jobs and lag behind in athletic opportunities, the report says.

Women continue to be scarce in positions of leadership within faculties and administrations, the report says. While women make up nearly 85 percent of the teaching force in the early grades, they constitute only 46 percent of the faculties of secondary schools. Fewer than one-quarter of the state's principals are women, the report says.

The commission found similar disparities on college faculties.

"Although we want to be optimistic, we cannot celebrate yet,'' the report says. "We have to do better than this.

A jobs crisis in southeastern Wisconsin is preventing thousands of young black males from making a successful transition from school to work, concludes a study said to be the largest of its kind in the state.

The Employment and Training Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee examined the recent employment experience of men from low-income families, including 5,400 male teenagers and 7,400 men in their early 20's. The study is estimated to have covered more than 75 percent of the area's black male teenagers and 85 percent of its black male 20- to 24-year-olds.

According to the study, which was released last month, 41 percent of black males ages 20 to 24 from poor families in Milwaukee County were unemployed during a three-month period in 1990. It also shows that only 10 percent of the 8,421 jobs held by that population in 1990 paid enough to support a single person at a level above the federal poverty level, and that only 5 percent paid enough to support a family.

The report also shows that while more than 3,400 young black males from poor families worked while in school and nearly 900 held summer jobs, the work was primarily in short-term, very low-paying retail trade or service-industry jobs.

Job obstacles for young black Milwaukee-area males, the report said, are compounded by racial discrimination in the labor market and housing segregation.

In addition to a New Deal-style jobs program, the study recommends expanding high school cooperative-education programs; creating "tryout'' jobs for high school students with employers from government, construction, and finance; and launching an evening vocational high school. It also calls for a program guaranteeing jobs for graduates under certain conditions and a public-works program for dropouts who agree to return to school.

Copies of the study, "The Labor Market Experience of Young African-American Men from Low-Income Families in Wisconsin,'' are available for $15 each from the Employment and Training Institute, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, Wis. 53201; telephone (414) 229-5902.

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